In an overheated New York Times profile that was essentially the only advance article about Solange’s fifth and latest long-player, “When I Get Home,” the writer stated that the album, the follow-up to 2016’s critically revered “A Seat at the Table,” would “likely arrive [suddenly] into the world fully formed at some mysterious and unexpected moment, like a meteor cratering into the culture.” Comic hyperbole aside, the album’s arrival does encapsulate many things about itself and Solange’s career. Preceded by a handful of social-media posts, “When I Get Home” did arrive fully-formed just after midnight on March 1 — as Black History Month became National Women’s History Month, in case anyone missed that thematic link — and in every sense, the music leads the listener: The album knows exactly where it’s going, and when and how it’s getting there, so the best approach is to settle in and trust that the driver has mapped out an interesting ride, even when it feels like you’re taking the scenic route.
And indeed, Solange is unquestionably in the driver’s seat here. She cowrote and coproduced every song, and although a raft of (mostly male) guests and collaborators are on board — including Gucci Mane, Pharrell Williams, Playboi Carti, The-Dream, John Key, Devonté Hynes, Metro Boomin, Sampha and Tyler, The Creator — there’s never any question about who’s controlling this wide-ranging and ever-evolving show. She’s created an album that takes awhile to get to know, that reveals its charms gradually and promises to be the kind of work that grows more coherent over time and repeated listens.
It’s also the kind of album that resists hot takes: There are no bangers, insta-hit singles or even the kind of centerpiece songs like “Cranes in the Sky” or “Don’t Touch My Hair” that anchored “A Seat at the Table.” And while that set was definitely a “real album” — a musically and lyrically unified and cohesive statement, with multiple underlying themes — “When I Get Home” is even more of a single piece. The songs are almost like segments of a mosaic that make more sense as part of the whole than individually, and with a total of 19 tracks but a running time of just 39 minutes, it feels longer, like more of a journey, than it actually is. The songs are interconnected and brief — just a few break the three-minute mark, the longest is 3:42 — and some feel more like sketches, beginning or ending inconclusively or lurching into something else. There are spoken-word passages throughout; on “My Skin My Logo,” she bursts out laughing during one verse.
None of which is to say that certain songs won’t work outside of the larger context. “My Skin My Logo” is woozy tag-team with Gucci Mane that abruptly changes direction two minutes in; “Way to the Show” and “Stay Flo” are melodic R&B romps with tricky rhythms; “Binz” is a singsong collaboration with The-Dream that almost sounds like Tierra Whack; and “Sound of Rain” is a slow groove with stacked vocals and a vamp at the end where it seems she’s (intentionally?) channeling big sister Beyonce on the “swangin’ on my ways” outro.
Comparisons with Stevie Wonder’s 1973 masterpiece “Innervisions” were rife in the hot takes that popped up on social media in the hours after “When I Get Home” arrived, but that album’s follow-up, the darker, jazz-inflected “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” is actually a more apt comparison. Like that disc, there is a strong jazz element here — along with the limber funk, dry production, twittering keyboards and light-footed melodies that mark Wonder’s golden age — and many of the songs are intentionally initially disorienting. The opening track, “Things I Imagined,” uses jarring repetition in a way that almost recalls the sound of a CD skipping.
The lyrics are generally brief and repetitive — and deserve a deeper look than an insta-review can provide — but themes of exploration, freedom, dreams, disillusion, materialism, black empowerment and references to Solange’s hometown of Houston abound, along with statements of self-determination: One interlude ends with the line “Do nothing without intention,” another contains the apparently defining statement, “I can’t be a singular expression of myself, there’s too many parts, too many spaces, too many manifestations, too many lines, too many curves, too many troubles, too many journeys, too many mountains, too many rivers, so many …”
“When I Get Home” is a challenging and satisfying follow-up to “A Seat at the Table,” one that will probably baffle some fans but intrigue and engage even more. Is it Solange’s “First Finale”? Hopefully so — because if the Wonder parallel holds, that means her “Songs in the Key of Life” is up next.